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picture of Shepley Cricket Club in 1952
Shepley Cricket Club 1952

A Paucity of Preservation

by Robin Holmes

In the second of his 'Paucity' articles, Robin Holmes looks at the years that followed the formation of the Pleasant Dinners Cricket Club.

It may not have been very long ago, but cricket was rather different when PDCC began. World Series Cricket, and rebel tours to South Africa, had come and gone but cricket remained intact. It was dependable; like the first swallows of spring. We knew what to expect, when to expect it, and we were thrilled when it arrived.

From the boundary, cricket seemed humourless. It was steeped in centuries of tradition, and scandals were few. To the novice it seemed mysterious and as with all acquired tastes required some perseverance. It appealed to misfits of all classes and was ripe for parody.

The years that followed brought expansionism, match-fixing, the unfettered rise of the International Cricket Council, wealth accumulation, and muscle flexing from the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Meaningless cricket cluttered the calendar and Test nations formed political coalitions.

The Test and County Cricket Board was retired for being an 'anachronism' and its successor, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), set about filling its coffers anyway it could.

picture of Hansie Cronje fessing up to being a crook
11 April 2000: As evidence of taking money from Indian bookmakers mounts, the captain of South Africa Hansie Cronje finally admits match fixing.

It made a lot of money by placing broadcasting rights in the open market. This put an end to uninterrupted television coverage, and before long, an end to free-to-air televised cricket coverage. Recently the ECB complained when the BBC refused to pay the king's ransom needed to reverse the situation.

Freed from traditional restraints and in league with a ratings hungry corporation, the ECB invented the twenty-over cricket format.

While all this was going on we grew accustomed to drug scandals, the relentless persecution of umpires, and endless criticism of county cricket from commentators and journalists who rarely attend domestic games.

The coach of the Pakistan national team may even have been murdered for being the Pakistan cricket coach - or might it have been something to do with his past?

He was after all, the former coach of a South African side that contained many players implicated in match fixing, including three who were variously punished by the authorities. One of these was a close friend who had also died in mysterious circumstances.

picture of Pakistani fans going nuts
17 June 2001: Hundreds of fans invade the pitch and a steward is hospitalised. English captain Alec Stewart concedes a one-day game on 'safety grounds' with Pakistan still two runs short of their target.

The cause of this sorry and sometimes sordid decline is complex. Cultural differences, GDP disparities, and socioeconomic change are all contributing factors; but it is the age-old combination of greed and opportunity that is mainly to blame.

As the American cartoonist Bill Watterson once said "to make a business decision, you don't need much philosophy; all you need is greed, and maybe a little knowledge of how the game works".

The economic conditions necessary for commercial forces to profit from cricket to an extent that until very recently was unthinkable now exist. And administrators have been sufficiently flexible and malleable to ensure that financial opportunities are capitalised upon.

Professional cricket - which until recently was merely a more skilful and better organised version of what many of us have played at school, in parks, and on the street - has been betrayed by those who once served and protected it. And like the freak-show managers of yesteryear, cricket's new masters are drawn to the 'big-top'. Why bother with the 'Globe' when the 'greatest show on earth' pays more and demands less?

And as every barrow-boy or fast-food vendor knows, a good many people are happy with whatever is on offer - if merits are overstated and the virtues of alternatives are criticised or ignored.

For this reason there is as much 'spin' off the field as there is out in the middle and media-relations are managed with an enthusiasm reminiscent of New Labour: "roll-up, roll-up!"

picture of Bob Woolmer
18 March 2007: Bob Woolmer, former English test cricketer and coach of the Pakistan national side is found dead in his hotel room hours after his team exits the World Cup following a shock loss to Ireland. A murder investigation commences.

For instance, it is often claimed that the central purpose of twenty-over cricket is to broaden the appeal of the longer versions of the game. Well, this would be a plausible proposition if profits were ploughed into grass roots cricket development - but they are not.

All but the most gullible proponents of this form of the game care no more about the depth and quality of a spectator's understanding of cricket than The Spice Girls cared about the quality of the records that were forced into the psyche of little girls. They have simply found there is money to be made humouring football fans in the off-season.

And there is no such thing as mutual exclusivity in the contradiction free world of 'spin'. A county cricket chief executive whose team often contains a majority of 'Kolpak' qualified cricketers recently asserted that the practice had enhanced the development of squad members eligible to play for England. Surely limiting or even excluding players from gaining first-class experience can only stunt their progress.

India - the new capital of world cricket 'modernisation' - has at least provided a rare example of translucency. The Indian Premier League (IPL) may not be to everybody's liking but at least it wasn't disguised as anything other than profitable light entertainment.

By way of contrast, the ECB claim they were forced into aping the IPL by English internationals who had complained that the terms of their central contacts - which up until a matter of months ago were the envy of world cricket - were too restrictive.

Are they really so frightened that Kevin Pietersen or Matt Prior will continue their international odyssey, or that the likes of Ravi Bopara and Michael Vaughan will be lost to these shores forever, that restructuring domestic cricket is deemed to be a proportionate measure?

Or is it more likely that the English Premier League will take place in 2010 because offers of patronage from Texan billionaires are rare and the ECB are unwilling to allow cricket considerations to affect business decisions?

More worrying is the fear that this is merely the tip of the iceberg. Conventional cricket is for sale and will be dismantled bit by bit until the mood of the market changes.

picture of Allen Stanford
11 June 2008: Allen Stanford arrives at Lords in a helicopter, claims Test cricket is "boring", poses with a box of US currency, and strikes a deal or two with the ECB.

Mentioning tradition invariably attracts ridicule but it is worth remembering that the current County Championship was created in the late nineteenth-century. If it was a property the National Trust would guard it. If it was popularly regarded as 'diverse' - it is in actual fact - politicians would recognise its cultural significance and need for protection.

Yet reformers need not fear a preservationist backlash. We are a powerless lot and our resistance amounts to little more than murmurs of discontent exchanged among ourselves - therapeutic protestations that belie a sense of inevitability.

For cricket has long been an easy target due to its former relationship with imperialism - for some it will always be a symbolic reminder of British hegemony. Nor does its perceived association with men of a certain class help its cause.

The foundations have eroded, the territories have weakened, and commercial vandals have breached the borders.

One can not blame cricketers or entrepreneurs for wanting to take advantage of the current climate; but given the lessons of the past - including recent warnings from ICC Anti-Corruption head Paul Condon - one might have hoped we could rely on administrators to demonstrate due caution.

Sadly however, they are every bit as eager to indulge the "Emperor's New Clothes".

Like civil servant 'lifers' who are prone to disregard conventional wisdom on a whim, they embrace change out of boredom, a desire for advancement, and a need for reinvention.

Of course none of this is unique to cricket; it isn't the first sport to be corrupted by money nor will it be the last. But it would be wise for administrators - they who wield the most power and gain the least financially - to bear in mind that Cool Britannia very quickly became an embarrassment that one-time patrons sought to distance themselves from.

And the political fortunes of its architects, like the economy they presided over, ultimately hit rock bottom. But take comfort Giles Clarke, a lot of businessmen and pop-stars got rich in the process.